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COP26 Preview | Nations meet to act on climate amidst Covid-19 rupture

China’s mishandling of the initial Covid-19 infections may have alienated it and experts predict the talks could be even more contentious than earlier as the increasingly bipolar nature of global political summits pits China against the Western powers.

October 27, 2021 / 07:30 PM IST
A demonstrator holds a sign reading

A demonstrator holds a sign reading "1.5 degrees, absolute priority" during the Global Climate Strike of the movement Fridays for Future in Berlin, Germany, October 22. (Image: Reuters)

Starting October 31, heads of states will meet for the 26th edition of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, or COP26, as it is better known.

While discussions on something as crucial as climate change cannot take place in a vacuum, the upcoming conference could be quite tetchy due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant global economic slowdown. The two-week annual summit was originally due to be held in 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic.

Nations will once again converge to decide how to reduce harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that threatens humanity’s collective future. Excess CO2 in the atmosphere has caused the average global temperature to shoot up over the past 150 years, melting glaciers and raising ocean levels.

The latest COP comes in the backdrop of a major shift in global geopolitics. China’s mishandling of the initial Covid infections and its dogged refusal to even share the blame for the pandemic have alienated it from a large number of nations.

The talks are expected to be even more contentious than before as the increasingly bipolar nature of global political summits pits China against the Western powers.


“The China-vs-all or China-vs-Quad nations scenario will invariably come up,” said Samrat Sengupta, programme director, climate change & renewable energy at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. “This will also have an impact on the environment or climate debate because energy – the source and security of energy – is inherent to all those politics. We can’t avert this.”

Health or climate?

The pandemic, the race to manufacture vaccines, and the attempts to ramp up healthcare systems to save lives, whether in advanced economies like the US or developing nations like India, presented policymakers with some uncomfortable questions – after all, no nation has an infinite budget.

While it won’t be a stark choice between spending on renewable energy or on healthcare, policymakers around the world may have to choose what to prioritise in the short to medium term, a government official told Moneycontrol on condition of anonymity.

Some have argued that Indian policymakers will have a tougher time in trying to convince the electorate of the benefits of investing more money and effort in the environment than in healthcare in the post-Covid era. But experts dismiss these concerns, saying governments know they are way past these arguments.

“One thing we cannot discuss is health vs energy or health vs environment because the present requirement on the primary health care systems is a reactive requirement,” Sengupta said. “You have to do it immediately. On the other hand, renewables are perfectly poised to be a politically perfect agenda to push for because it’s the cheapest and it is modular. As a result, it provides us with an opportunity to democratise the supply side. Renewables are also pushing for electrification and creates major employment.”

Asian giants

At the same time, India’s rivalry with China in the economic and political space has threatened to spill over into environmental diplomacy where the countries have long batted together against richer nations.

“For many years, China and India had acted as part of a single bloc when it came to environmental issues. But in the last decade, China has risen rapidly and currently is responsible for 30 percent of global emissions. Its per capita emissions are currently at levels above the European Union and are expected to reach US levels in the next five years,” Sengupta said.

Considering that India has an almost similar population, its per capita emissions are still less than one-third of average global emission levels. This disparity, among other issues, ensures that China and India will not be on similar grounds at international fora, let alone act as a bloc any more, he stressed.

India’s agenda

As reported earlier, the Indian delegation led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to mount a major diplomatic campaign during COP26 aimed at pushing developed nations like the US, Australia and the European Union bloc to announce major cutbacks in their carbon emissions in the next five years.

India plans to enter the summit on a high, having implemented ambitious goals towards increasing non-renewable sources of energy, said a senior official involved in the planning for India's participation at the event.

At the historic Paris summit in 2015, all emitters, big and small, had agreed to bring forward new and more ambitious carbon-cutting plans every five years. The 2020 deadline has since passed without major commitments from any member of the developed bloc.

India will also push for green financing from developed nations and seek to channel a part of this support to the International Solar Alliance, a network of 90-plus countries that it has established and championed. The government will continue to argue that the country’s per capita emissions show each Indian has a much smaller carbon footprint than the average American or European.

In 2015, India was one of the major economies to announce drastic cuts in its carbon emissions. At the Paris climate summit, New Delhi pledged to reduce its carbon footprint by 33-35 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

On the other hand, Modi has set a target of generating 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, which is five times the current capacity and two and half times the Paris pledge. India’s share of non-fossil-fuel-based energy resources in terms of installed electricity generation capacity has already reached 38 percent against a target of 40 percent by 2030.
Subhayan Chakraborty has been regularly reporting on international trade, diplomacy and foreign policy, for the past 6 years. He has also extensively covered evolving industry and government issues. He was earlier with Business Standard newspaper.
Arup Roychoudhury

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